If you’ve searched on Google recently (who hasn’t!) you may have noticed something called a snippet.   These have been around for a while but have recently caused a stir after Google were “caught” copying content.

A snippet appears at the top of a list of search results, and is intended to show you what you were looking for without you having to click on any of the links in the list.

These snippets have been controversial as they’re effectively stopping Google users from reaching other websites.

Let’s take an example, say you were searching for a score in a baseball game.   Here, Google might show the score at the top of the page, and then include links to other websites that discuss the game.   Previously, you’d have to visit one of the websites to get the score, but with a snippet, you can find what you were searching for instantly without having to look any further.

Obviously, if you’re one of the sporting sites that was relying on visitors from Google, you’re now out of luck.   People who used to reach your site now only get as far as the search results.

For the end user it’s a time saver, but it can have a big effect on other websites.

Some snippets work to the advantage of other websites though.   There are some which act as a kind of teaser – giving just enough information, but leading the user to click on the website to get more.    Song lyrics were an example of this.   Until recently, if you searched for the lyrics to a song, you’d get the start of the lyrics as a snippet, and then a link to click on if you wanted to see the rest.

Unfortunately, Google changed this and started including the full lyrics as a snippet, effectively cutting off websites offering the same service.

One of these services was called Genius, and they started to wonder where Google were getting all of these lyrics from.   Back in 2017 they notified Google that their transcriptions were appearing in the search results.   Genius again sent a letter to Google in April, but after no response they decided to lay an ingenious trap.

Genius edited their lyrics and inserted a secret code.   They converted single quotation marks to be a sequence of straight and curly single-quote marks.   Eventually this code appeared in the Google search results – proving that they were indeed “scraping” the content from Genius.   In a fun twist, the code that Genius inserted into their lyrics was Morse-code for “Red Handed”.

They were indeed caught red handed and Genius went to the Wall Street Journal with the story!

Google responded by saying that they “license the lyrics from third parties”.   It turned out Google were sourcing their lyrics through a third party called “LyricFind”.

LyricFind then responded with “Some time ago, Ben Gross from Genius notified LyricFind that they believed they were seeing Genius lyrics in LyricFind’s database. As a courtesy to Genius, our content team was instructed not to consult Genius as a source. Recently, Genius raised the issue again and provided a few examples. All of those examples were also available on many other lyric sites and services, raising the possibility that our team unknowingly sourced Genius lyrics from another location. As a result, LyricFind offered to remove any lyrics Genius felt had originated from them, even though we did not source them from Genius’ site. Genius declined to respond to that offer. Despite that, our team is currently investigating the content in our database and removing any lyrics that seem to have originated from Genius.”

This goes to show how content can spread across the Internet without really knowing where it has originally come from.   Genius were indeed ‘genius’ by inserting the hidden code in their content to track it.

Google declared that they would “soon include attribution to the third party providing the digital lyrics text.”   Now if you search for a lyric, you’ll find the source at the bottom of the snippet.

Watch out for this and see if you can spot any secret codes next time you search for a lyric!